With proper nutrition and a conditioning program, barrel horses can bounce back from a winter layoff better than ever and ready to run.

Between holiday parties with elaborate edibles to winter weather keeping people indoors, winter helps pack on the pounds. Horses are no different, receiving extra treats or simply unable to be worked in inhospitable winter weather. Yet when spring and summer roll around, we are ready to run.

Before filling your calendar with barrel racing events, take a look at the body condition and fitness of your horse. Weeks of conditioning to prime your mount for competition may be needed, in addition to adjusting your feed program to match the nutritional requirements needed for competing. These factors all play into how well you and your horse will do at that first barrel race.

For the lowdown on getting race ready, Karen Davison, PhD, breaks down the nutritional needs of a horse in training. National Finals Rodeo barrel racer Michele McLeod discusses her top-notch conditioning program. With these tips, a fit and conditioned mount is ready to take aim at a busy barrel racing season.

Feed Facts

Before launching a new feed program aimed at eliminating excess winter weight and replacing it with toned, barrel-turning muscle, evaluate your horse’s body condition. As the equine technical director for Purina Animal Nutrition, Davison works to develop complete nutrition programs for all kinds of working horses. Davison says there are three factors to keep in mind when conditioning a horse or increasing the level of work: body condition, forage and feed, and supplements.

Conditioning the barrel horse also starts with nutrition
An important step in ensuring your horse’s overall body condition can meet the demands of performance is to evaluate the nutritional benefits from your current feed and forage provided. Photo by Bonnie Wheatley.

“One of the best management tools to help determine if you’re feeding too much or too little for the level of work being done is a body condition score chart,” Davison said. “You can see where a horse deposits body fat, and you can see reallyquickly where a horse is beginning to drop weight.”

Understanding whether a horse needs to lose weight or tone up is vital when starting a conditioning program. The next step is evaluating nutritional benefits from the horse’s current feed and forage.

Davison says nutritional requirements do increase as the level of work increases. Calorie requirements obviously increase with more exercise, but athletes also need vitamins, minerals and high-quality protein to build and support muscle mass and function.

“As you look at your feeding program, keep in mind: Do I have a horse that is fat from getting ample calories but he’s soft fat? Versus a horse that is getting the same calories but looks in shape?” Davison said. “There are empty calories, meaning there are feeds and supplements with calories that aren’t properly balanced with good quality protein, vitamins and minerals. Those empty calories can only contribute to body fat, they can’t build muscle and bone. For example, you can provide enough calories from fat supplements and hay to keep most horses fat enough. But that doesn’t mean they are getting all the protein, vitamins and minerals they need to support lean tissues and do work.”

Start by monitoring your horse’s body condition, decide if it needs to gain weight, lose weight or maintain its current body condition.

“The calories supplied by the diet [need to] increase when you work the horse harder,” Davison said. “If you don’t increase the calorie content but work the horse harder, it will lose weight. Some horses may need to lose weight if they’ve been sedentary or on a less active plan over winter. Most horses don’t need to lose weight when you’re getting ready to do summer hauls. You have to be proactive and adjust calorie intake to support what the horse is being asked to do.”

Choose a well-balanced feed designed for performance horses to help make sure your horse has the quality protein and necessary vitamins and minerals to keep it in running shape.

Then, take a look at the forage you provide. Is the coastal hay freshly cut? Are you feeding alfalfa? Each forage type offers different levels of nutrients and can range from good quality hay to “just something to eat.” Not even all alfalfa is the same from a nutrition standpoint.

Davison says having better quality forage can take some of the burden of fueling the horse off the grain program.

“Some of us are faced with getting a horse fit on marginal-quality hay,” Davison said. “Then you have to rely more on your feed and supplements to make up the difference. Coming into spring, many people have turnout time allowing the horse access to green pasture, and that can help support higher levels of work. Everyone needs to consider what kind of forage is available to help with [getting the horse in shape].”

If forage and feed aren’t providing the horse with the nutrition needed to maintain condition and a higher level of work, the next step is often to add a supplement. Davison says owners have a wealth of options for supplements, but first she advises educating yourself as to the supplement company’s reputation and the product’s success rate.

“Some people try to meet calorie requirements with fat supplements like rice bran, vegetable oils and things like that. You have to be careful when you’re doing that, because some of those [supplements] provide fat calories but not balanced nutrition,” Davison said. “You may end up where you’re providing enough calories to keep the horse fat, but you’re not giving the nutrients to support the level of work and maintain muscle mass and hoof quality.”

Davison suggests doing thorough research on the product and its manufacturer or asking a veterinarian or nutrition expert before using any supplement.

“I caution people to get guidance,” Davison said. “Make sure there is proof [the supplement] is going to work. There is not a lot of regulation in the supplement business, so as best you can, buy from a reputable source. In the feed business, there are regulatory agencies routinely monitoring to be sure feeds meet tag guarantees. There is not that level of oversight in the supplement business.”

Supplements can fill a nutritional gap but having the proper level of each vitamin or mineral is imperative to keep from overdoing it. There are potential toxicity issues when using multiple supplements together or when supplements are added to well-fortified feeds. Davison suggests working with a veterinarian or equine nutritionist before adding anything to the feed program.

There is no shortage of potential feed and supplement combinations. Davison says a good judge on what works is to watch your horse’s body condition.

“As the quality of your forage changes and your workload changes and you see changes in your horse, you have to reassess your feeding program,” Davison said. “The better quality your forage, the less you have to rely on your feeding program. Look for a good feeding program or supplementation program that helps the horse. It comes back to paying attention to the horse.”

Conditioning the barrel horse includes mental and physical.
McLeod’s goal for her horses is to have them mentally and physically prepared to “run to, collect up and turn completely around any barrel.” Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Davison says you need to maintain the running machine. Proper nutrition will support the level of work the horse does and can help the horse recover faster between runs. Horses can run hard on heart and talent, sometimes in spite of improper nutrition, but it’s very hard to sustain high levels of performance over a season without good nutritional support.

The key is finding a simple but effective program that keeps the horse running as fast on the third run in a weekend as it did the first run. A blend of well-balanced feed and quality forage can keep a horse fit to work.

Run Ready

A horse’s performance condition is directly impacted by its level of fitness and nutrition. On a proper feed program, the horse has the energy and nutrition to build and maintain muscle. Building muscle takes time and diligence. Just ask barrel horse trainer and champion rider Michele McLeod.

“Getting a horse in top condition can take eight to 10 weeks,” McLeod said. “If you do the work, you’ll have a fit horse that is less prone to injury.”

While winter weather can deter riding in many areas, other places see ample barrel races and rodeos in the winter months. In fact, the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association sanctions a number of large barrel races January through April, including major stock show rodeos like the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, the San Angelo Stock Show and Rodeo and the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. Many top riders keep their horses worked year-round and in optimum fitness at all times.

However, adding a new horse to the program or bringing a horse off a winter layoff requires a good, solid conditioning plan. McLeod uses an easy-to-follow regimen to condition her horses.

“I do a sitting trot for five minutes each direction, walking a minute in between, then lope for five minutes in each direction, walking a minute in between. We set our timer and it doesn’t seem like a long time, but it is a lot to lope a horse for five full minutes,” McLeod said. “Then I start my circles to work on body position. Usually, about five minutes equals a mile, so my horses ride several miles a day.”

McLeod learned to estimate the mile distance equating five minutes from Sonny Suttle, a former Thoroughbred racehorse trainer turned barrel horse trainer. Suttle trained Sixth Vision (Streakin Six x Dream N Win x Dash For Cash). His program helped McLeod keep NFR stallion Slick By Design (Designer Red x Dreams Of Blue x Dream On Dancer) in shape.

When adding a new horse to her program, McLeod drops the riding time to an attainable goal before working the horse up to her five-minute standard.

“Most of the time when I get a new horse, I can tell they aren’t as fit as the horses I’m currently riding,” McLeod said. “It takes time to get one to that condition. I start with three minutes instead of five. But I am not as set to the time and work more from feel. If the horse needs less or more, I feel that condition. In general, a new horse can last about three minutes.”

Riding with collection is optimum for the horse to use its body efficiently. However, it is physically strenuous, especially for horses not accustomed to being ridden collected.

“I keep mine collected up,” McLeod said. “That uses different muscles, and sometimes a new horse gets body sore working into this program. It takes several weeks to get into the condition I feel they should be in to work. Each day I peck away at it.”

Riding about six days a week allows McLeod to keep her horses in a consistent work routine. In addition to riding each horse to increase or maintain fitness, she keeps them supple with circles.

Instead of working the pattern, McLeod rides complete circles around barrels.

“I do full circles, because in my opinion, if you only work the pattern then your horse will short the turns on the first and third barrels,” McLeod said. “The second barrel is the only barrel where you do an entire circle. I don’t do the pattern at home, just complete circles. I want my horses so mentally and physically comfortable doing complete circles that they can run to, collect up and turn completely around any barrel.”

Setting three barrels out, McLeod keeps the horse round through its shoulder and back, moving the horse’s hip or shoulder around using arcs and reverse arcs. She does this at a trot and a lope around the barrels.

“I start at a sitting trot; I’m not one to do a lot of long trotting because I’ve seen more injuries from that. I’ll sit those circles,” McLeod said. “If keep a horse round through its shoulder back to its hip, not just ride the shoulders, I can keep the horse balanced for a nice collected turn in the pattern.”

Having a fit, supple horse is the end goal for every ride McLeod puts on a horse. She knows when she makes a run, a fit horse will recover faster than one not in optimum health and condition.

It takes time, effort and a good plan to get a horse ready to run frequently. With help from a veterinarian or nutritionist, horse owners can select the proper feed to match the desired performance level. Once a horse is in top shape and backed by a strong feed program, it will be hard to keep out of the winner’s circle.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.


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